Monday, September 23, 2013

Visiting Japan with Dr. Johnson

In 1772, the year before their tour of the Hebrides, James Boswell mentioned to Samuel Johnson that he was thinking of buying St Kilda, the most remote island of that chain. "Pray do, Sir," Johnson replied. "We shall go and pass a winter among the blasts there. We shall have some fine fish, and we shall take some dried tongue with us, and some books." To which Boswell, who, one suspects, had mentioned the prospect more as a form of boasting than in seriousness, answered, "Are you serious, Sir, in advising me to buy St Kilda? For if you should advise me to go to Japan, I believe I should do it."

{Photos by rocketlass.}

I read that passage on a thirteen-hour flight home from Japan earlier this month, and all I could think was how sad I was that Dr. Johnson--perhaps hoping to rid himself of the presence of Boswell, who, much as their friendship seems to have been genuine, surely was nonetheless an irritation at times--failed to order his friend to hie himself to Tokyo posthaste. What would Boswell have made of eighteenth-century Japan, utterly foreign to British sensibilities? I realize the journey's not truly to be wished, for it could only have come at the cost of the Life of Johnson, but that doesn't stop me from imagining a parallel universe Boswell visiting temples in Kyoto, telling tales of his bravery in support of Corsica (then explaining what and where Corsica is), and picking up ladies in the seedier districts.

On our trip, we took no dried tongue, but we did have some fine fish, and of course I took some books. Last time we visited Japan, four-and-a-half years ago, I read The Tale of Genji, which was a very good choice as reading material, but, at nearly four pounds, a lousy choice of a physical object to lug around. So this time I chose more wisely: I packed a similar number of pages, but spread across more books--among them books that I could leave behind when read, including a couple of disposable mass market paperbacks, a galley, and a copy of Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, which, fortunately, I can always get again at the office.

Young Men and Fire, which I was re-reading for the first time since it was first published, in 1992, was my company in Kyoto, and its quiet, meditative tale of loss and attempts at understanding it suited that ancient city. And finishing it there allowed me to improve the meager bookshelf in the Shunkoin Temple guest room, which, when we arrived, looked like this:

That's a Lilian Jackson Braun cat mystery; John Gardner's novelization of the Bond film Goldeneye; Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, a fine book but not exactly a vacation read; Less Than Zero; a forgettable thriller; and--the one book in the stack that would be a pleasure to find in a guest room--Dorothy Dunnett's Niccolo Rising. May Maclean find a new reader among the Americans and Aussies who seem to be the bulk of the temple's guests; may they be surprised to find a lost little bit of Montana in Kyoto.

Our return to Tokyo for one last night was the occasion of the trip's other book-related venture: meeting an online literary pal. Julian, one of three people behind the Only a Blockhead blog (its name keeping nicely with the Johnson theme), is an Englishman who's been living in Japan for decades, and I've been enjoying his thoughts on Japan and books both for years now, but this was our first actual meeting. He led us to the Park Hyatt Tokyo, high above the city, where he was kind enough to buy me and rocketlass drinks while we all talked books. It was a sheer pleasure, especially talking favorites and trading recommendations. Take my advice and meet your Internet friends, folks: I've yet to find that anyone I like through their online presence doesn't live up to that impression in reality.

{Note the book that Julian was reading when we walked up to him on the street: Sergio De La Pava's A Naked Singularity!}

We three--worn by late-summer heat, dressed casually for travel--didn't exactly reach the elegant heights of the 1950s Tokyo party described by Edmund de Waal in a memorable passage in The Hare with the Amber Eyes (a favorite shared with Julian):
Back in the corridor we move through an open doorway, under a Noh mask and into the sitting-room. The ceiling is of slatted wood. All the lamps are on. Objects are displayed on spare, dark, clean-lined Korean and Chinese furniture alongside comfortable low sofas, occasional tables and lamps, and ashtrays and cigarette boxes. A wooden Buddha from Kyoto sits on a Korean chest, a hand raised in blessing.

The bamboo bar holds an impressive quantity of liquor, none of which I can identify. It is a house made for parties. Parties with small children on their knees, and women in kimonos, and presents. Parties with men in dark suits seated round small tables, loquacious with whisky. Parties at New Year with cut boughs of pine trees hanging from the ceiling, and parties under the cherry trees, and once--in a spirit of poetry--a firefly-viewing party.
But the drinks were splendid, and the fellowship of books was with us, so what more could one reasonably ask for?

Elsewhere in The Life of Johnson, Johnson assures Boswell that "he never passed that week in his life which he would wish to repeat, were an angel to make the proposal to him." Having closed my trip by experiencing something along those lines in a peculiarly modern way, arriving home on a Saturday morning two hours before we'd left Tokyo, I can understand Dr. Johnson's sentiments. But two weeks in Japan to live again through the agency of an angel? Well, it would be hard not to be tempted.

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